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Why the U.S. Media Barely Covered Brutal Right-Wing Race Riots in Tel Aviv

Middle East analyst MJ Rosenberg discusses the Israel lobby, Iran and the xenophobic riots that shook Israeli society.

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JH: You recently got into a huge kerfuffle over your use of the term “Israel-firster.” The charge comes up again and again – we hear talk about these “anti-Semitic tropes,” which is something that if you hold up to the light in just the right way, and maybe squint your eyes a bit, is vaguely reminiscent of some antiquated anti-Semitic narrative.

At the time, I wrote that we live in a pretty rough-and-tumble political environment where you can call the president an illegitimate Manchurian candidate, you can call Democrats socialists or Republicans wing-nuts. But there isn’t really a derogatory term that’s acceptable for these advocates of the Israeli right. Perhaps that’s the best way to put it. I wonder: isn’t all of this a reaction to this group calling itself “pro-Israel?” Aren't you pro-Israel?

MR: Yeah, I’m pro-Israel. I’m pro-Israel in the sense that I want the country of Israel to live and thrive in security. What they mean by pro-Israel is do you support all the policies of the government of Israel -- except for a peace government like the Rabin government -- but every other government and every policy all the time.

The reason I coined the phrase Israel-firster is because to me there’s no other way to describe it. The same people who call Obama terrible names, or Bush terrible names, will defend everything Netanyahu says or does. So what is it? Go to the AIPAC convention. They sing the Israeli national anthem. It couldn’t be more blatant. They support candidates for office based not on what’s good for the United States, but what‘s good for Israel.

The way they defend that is to say, 'what’s good for Israel is good for America.' As George Washington would tell you, no two countries have the same interests. It’s an absurdity. Nobody would say that we have identical interests with Canada, or the UK, let alone Israel. That’s the way they get around it, by saying, 'yes we offer everything that Israel wants, or does, but that’s because if it’s good for Israel it’s good for America.'

I don’t want to say Israel; I shouldn’t really. AIPAC isn’t about caring about Israel. It’s supporting the occupation, supporting wars in Iran and Iraq, supporting the right wing in Israel. Half the Israeli population, according to polls, are against Netanyahu and are against those policies. AIPAC, and the lobby which includes other organizations as well, only support the Israeli right.

I remember I was working on Capitol Hill when Rabin was prime minister and was pursing his peace policy. AIPAC pursued a parallel policy of its own to try and undermine Rabin. It was so bad that Prime Minister Rabin tried to get this former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen -- who was later indicted for espionage -- Rabin went in and asked AIPAC to fire him. 'He’s working against my policies,' he said. When it’s peace policies, then AIPAC suddenly keeps its distance. Of course that’s not an issue now.

JH: I should note, MJ, that you once wrote that they really were "Netanyahu-firsters."

Speaking of our discourse, I want to talk about an issue that came up recently that’s gotten very little coverage in the United States. There were a series of violent race riots by right-wing Israelis against African immigrants in Tel Aviv. This was a big deal. I was looking at the US coverage and it was amazing at how little attention these riots received. The Christian Science Monitor ran a piece, the New York Times wrote about it on its blog, and some papers actually took the side of the rioters, in a sense, framing the issue as related to “African violence,” which is a pretty dubious claim as far as I can see. Tell us about what happened and what it says about Israeli society today. [Editor's note: several days after this interview was conducted, the New York Times did run an article on the violence in Tel Aviv.]

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